BROOKLYN, NY—For those not initiated, it can be hard to reconcile what The Weeknd is with the success he’s attained.
The Ethiopian singer (by way of Toronto) is a superstar, without a doubt, having scored back-to-back No. 1 singles (the summer anthem “Can’t Feel My Face” and “The Hills) on the Hot 100 from his sophomore album, Beauty Behind the Madness.
What he’s not, is Trey Songz or Chris Brown. He doesn’t possess the puckish sex appeal of the former, nor does he exhibit any of the latter’s explosive dance movements. And he’s hardly Michael Jackson, despite, at times, his best efforts.
Instead, the man born Abel Tesfaye is a stoner; not quite lonely in the Kid Cudi sense, but certainly more in line with Wiz Khalifa—he’s vibe-y, atmospheric and gives off an everyman sheen. The last point is most impressive, considering his all-black outfit comes courtesy of Alexander Wang. (The hoodie, vest and Jordan 5s are culpable, however.)
And in a hazy cloud (and under a weed-induced one), The Weeknd outputs a specific strand of R&B, that’s ripe with overtly sexual come-ons and paeans to his homies, which are then stirred to provoke via the swagger in his delivery.
On Thursday night (November 19), at the Barclays Center to conclude his three-day residency in New York, Tesfaye was perched high above the crowd on an elevated stage with his band behind a constructed scaffolding.
Here, a would-be cynic would find symbolism in the singer residing in what looked like a steel cage. Wrestling with his past? Of course, the material on his mixtape trilogy (House of Balloons, Echoes of Silence and Thursday) was darker and more drug-filled, the memoir of a young man descending into debauchery, than his current LP, which features production by pop king, Max Martin.
But it’s hard not to argue that he’s the same visionary from four years ago, even if the tunes now are chart-toppers and his crowds are split between Day Ones and new 2015 fan club members.
“In my city I’m a young god, that pussy kill be so vicious,” he sang on “Often,” rousing the audience early in his set.
He quickly followed that up with “High For This” and “The Party & The Afterparty,” turning guys in leather biker jackets and all-black ensembles into mini Christian Greys, who pulled their ladies in, while blowing smoke out.
Like the “50 Shades of Grey” character, who has a penchant for toys, The Weeknd was buoyed by his chosen concert production devices.
“Crew Love,” his 2011 collaboration with Drake, proved to be an irresistible highlight of the night.
Tesfaye’s elastic vocals were measured as he began: “I don’t know if you can hear me right now Brooklyn, New York.”
Pyrotechnics emerged onstage as The Weeknd grabbed his microphone stand, lifted it off the ground and pointed the equipment toward the audience like a rifle.
By the time he got to “cause they lovin’ the crew, they lovin’ the crew” the beat and fanning flames burned hot and the sold-out crowd was heavy and bothered.
(Without the showmanship of his production, he was more matter-of-fact, pacing the stage for "Tell Your Friends.")
While he vacillated between selections from Trilogy and Beauty, he closed with a pair of his most recent (and biggest) hits, “Can’t Feel My Face” and “The Hills.”
“Can’t” showcased his vocals (replete with MJ hiccups and tics) and “Hills” was haunting, its usual self: creepy and salacious.
The one-song encore, though, “Wicked Games,” a prescient number, laid out best, in his own words, perhaps, The Weeknd’s transformation from cutting-edge crooner to pop stardom.
“Listen, ma, I'll give you all I got/
Get me off of this, I need confidence in myself/
Listen, ma, I'll give you all of me/
Give me all of it, I need all of it to myself.”